‘It’s always been done this way.”
That was the response, last year, when a local register of deeds was asked about an annual conference for elected registers that included a golf tournament, lavish door prizes and live entertainment at a mountain resort.
And who picked up the tab? A fee-paying public and vendors paid with public money, of course.
Apparently the criticism that accompanied last year’s public revelations hasn’t done much to change the attitude of those involved.
In September, the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds again held its annual meeting. The location this time was Kitty Hawk.
Over three and a half days, a meeting agenda shows the group enjoying receptions, banquets, a golf tournament, and a fishing tournament. Actual business meetings took up about 13 hours of the schedule, assuming you don’t include meeting with vendors as a part of the official business.
What makes this yearly party (and that’s really what it is) particularly galling is that the N.C. General Assembly, at the prompting of the registers of deeds, agreed in 2011 to double some courthouse document filing fees, including those paid by home sellers and buyers.
That increase came as the association ramped up their dues, with some small counties paying double the amount that they had previously paid.
And where did that money go? Some of it went for their nice, little annual conference.
The involvement of vendors in the conference presents its own problems.
Vendors contributing $1,000 or even $1,500 to help pay the freight for this beach get-away creates an obvious potential for a conflict of interest. These same registers make decisions about purchasing record-keeping software and computer systems from the vendors.
Imagine being the software company owner looking for business who receives a pitch to contribute to the conference.
Want to say no to that?
Last year, ethics watchdogs suggested that legislators ought to consider bringing these officeholders under the same set of ethics rules that now applies to state elected and appointed officials.
The problem with the suggestion is that the State Ethics Commission, which is charged enforcing ethics laws, is already stretched thin.
Bringing in registers of deeds and other locally elected officials into the same regulatory scheme would likely mean weakening enforcement.
There has also been some criticism from within.
At least three local registers of deeds – Laura Riddick in Wake County, Craig Olive in Johnston County and Matt McCall in Iredell County – have publicly criticized their colleagues for the conference perks.
In other places, the perks have become a campaign issue.
Harnett County is one of those place. There, the association’s former president, Kimberly Hargrove, faces legislative aide Darryl Black, who has consistently raised the conference perks as a campaign issue.
Perhaps the best body to enforce some ethics is the electorate.
Tossing out a few recalcitrant registers might send a message to the rest that the public won’t tolerate such abuse.